During the last couple of sessions of our Learning Independence for Future Empowerment (L.I.F.E.) Program in Toronto, the group was introduced to a new TV show called Speechless. The show follows the DiMeo family as they go through life and the challenges associated with moving to a new town and starting at a new school.
We’re shown the experiences of every member of the family; Maya the overprotective, sometimes meddling mom, Jimmy the carefree dad, JJ the oldest son with a great sense of humor, Ray the brainiac, and Dylan the athletic daughter.
It’s heartfelt, funny, and quite realistic as many of the L.I.F.E. participants are able to recount similar experiences they’ve had throughout their lives. This show brings Cerebal Palsy into the mainstream in a big way! It also addresses a number of assumptions about disability in order to educate its viewers in a humorous way.
The reason for the title being Speechless is because the main character, JJ, has Cerebral Palsy and uses a communication device in order to speak. It begins with the family moving to a new town and finding a new aide for JJ. Throughout the episodes, there are humorous story lines that really humanize the experience of having a disability for its viewers, who may have no understanding of disability.
The L.I.F.E. Toronto group got together to think of anecdotes they’ve experienced that are similar to those shown in Speechless.
In the first episode, JJ walks into his new classroom only to be bombarded with classmates clapping and cheering for him and nominating him for Class President. Participants in the L.I.F.E. program have experienced similar reactions from people in the public when we are out on social outings, “people come up to us and congratulate us on being out and doing activities.”
In another episode, Maya calls JJ over and over again because he failed to show up for his physiotherapist. The group can empathize with JJ on this one and share their similar experiences; Marissa says that she often ignores calls when she is driving her chair because she is staying safe and attentive – whilst also recognizing that not answering her phone may cause people to worry about her.
In the first season, JJ meets Claire, an avid gymnast who is in a wheelchair while she recovers from a gymnastics injury. They become close and JJ decides to tell Claire that he has feelings for her, despite his fear of being rejected. The L.I.F.E. participants can relate to the fear of rejection; rejection from schools, sports teams, programs, and jobs. Jess told the group about her college experience. She made a few good friends throughout the program, but they stopped talking to her near the end of the school year. Jess felt like she had been taken advantage of, she felt they had been her friends to look good for the teacher. The experience caused feelings of rejection for Jess as she left college feeling as though she’d been used.
We thoroughly enjoyed the Speechless episode called HERO. This episode talks about “inspiration porn.” When Kenneth asks what that is, Ray explains, “it’s a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional things to only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”
In this episode there is a speech competition and a student who hardly knows JJ decides to write a speech regarding how JJ is his hero.
The L.I.F.E. Toronto group has had similar experiences where people have treated them as if they are “inspirational”. Jess has had some interesting experiences where new PSWs show up at her house and talk to her as if she is a baby. Once they see her college diploma, their tone immediately changes to, “Wow, you went to college!”
Another participant had an acquaintance say to her, “my husband and I could learn some things from you. We think that we have problems and are depressed but then I look at you and realize we don’t have it so hard and shouldn’t complain.” This comment really hurt the participant.
“[inspiration porn] is a portrayal of people with disabilities as one-dimensional things to only exist to warm the hearts and open the minds of able-bodied people.”
Evan shared an experience where his PSW called the attendants at his old apartment “angels”. L.I.F.E. Toronto staff have also had strangers approach them during outings to compliment them on what a great job they are doing. These types of compliments are quite silly, as the staff are just doing their job. Complimenting staff for no reason can also send the negative message that you assume that people with disabilities are somehow exceptionally difficult to work with.
In another Speechless episode called CHEATER, Maya and Jimmy learn that JJ has been cheating on his exams and that most of JJ’s teachers have been knowingly letting him off the hook. The L.I.F.E. group can relate to this, as some of them have had similar experiences where they forgot to pay their fare on the TTC but did not get questioned or reminded to pay by TTC drivers and fare inspectors.
The L.I.F.E. Toronto group has really enjoyed watching the first season of Speechless. The participants and staff all agree that the show has done a great job in portraying the experiences of persons with disabilities and their families, while dispelling disability-related stereotypes in an empathetic and often hilarious way. The group is eager to continue watching Speechless as soon as the next season becomes available.
Want to learn more about some of the important, fun, social, & general life skills we aim to provide young adults with disabilities who are transitioning to adulthood? Check it out here: http://bit.ly/modcLIFE